In less than six months, the XXIII Olympic Winter Games will begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But with an increasingly militant North Korea located less than 161 kilometers (100 miles) away, legitimate concerns have arisen over the event’s potential disruption. Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), recently said he was closely monitoring the situation, adding that it would be a topic of discussion at the committee’s upcoming meeting in Peru. Even so, it’s hard not to wonder who will bear the responsibility of ensuring the safety of athletes and spectators in Pyeongchang. The answer has been constantly evolving for over four decades.
A defining moment for the question of the sporting event’s security came in 1972. During the Munich Olympics, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took 11 Israeli coaches and athletes hostage; all of them died during a botched rescue attempt by German authorities. At the time, the committee’s leaders classified the incident as an “internal problem” for the German government. The IOC, they insisted, should not get involved. Even in the aftermath of the massacre, the committee paid little attention to security because of its long-standing conviction that politics and sports don’t mix. When it became apparent that the world of international sports needed to take some sort of action, the IOC made sure to place the task in someone else’s hands: those of the independently run local organizing committees established for each Olympic Games.
A decade after the Munich attack, the IOC softened its stance somewhat following the election of a new president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. Far more progressive than his predecessors, Samaranch listened to the advice of IOC member Ashwini Kumar, who emphasized the IOC’s pressing need to participate fully in the games’ security planning process.
Pulled From the Sidelines
The first cities to host the Olympics in the wake of the Munich Games were Innsbruck, Austria and Montreal, Canada. Visitors noted in both events that the sites — particularly the Olympic Villages where athletes were housed — resembled fortresses. Instead of a multinational sporting event, the Olympics seemed to be a primarily military exercise with a few athletic contests on the side. Of course, neither Innsbruck nor Montreal received financial or logistical support from the IOC as they bolstered their defenses. The Innsbruck Organizing Committee, for its part, followed the IOC’s example by passing the responsibility for security down the chain in hopes of saving money.
The situation didn’t improve much at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York or the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Though neither event suffered attacks, they did experience several problems that revealed the systemic flaws in granting a single organization the sole burden of managing security. For instance, the Lake Placid Organizing Committee unwittingly offered a contract for security equipment to a company under investigation by the U.S. government for links to terrorist groups.
A few years later, things finally began to change. Serving as the IOC’s security liaison, Kumar argued that a lack of attacks in 1976 and 1980 didn’t necessarily equate to efficient security planning. Though organizing committees continued to shoulder the bulk of the burden of coordinating the Olympics’ security, Kumar insisted that the IOC take on a bigger role by facilitating information sharing between the committee, national intelligence agencies and host city authorities. The IOC began to quickly transform from an uninterested bystander to an invested middleman, tracking the activities of terrorist organizations such as the West German Baader-Meinhof Group and the Japanese Red Army.
The clearest example of Kumar’s ideas in action came ahead of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Amid fears that North Korea might try to disrupt the event, IOC member Willi Daume wrote to Samaranch with an unusual plan: Daume wanted the committee president to persuade the Soviet Union’s National Olympic Committee to lean on its government to apply economic pressure against Pyongyang. Though there is little evidence that Samaranch followed through with the proposal, that Daume saw the IOC as an avenue of influence over the North Korean government marked a significant shift in policy. Far from refusing to mix politics and sports, Daume now urged Samaranch to preserve the Olympic movement through “decisive political ways.”
Playing to Precedent
The striking similarities between the tense buildups to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang are hard to ignore. In both cases, the games have been seen as a way to broker some form of peaceful exchange between the North and South. And in both cases, mounting bluster by Pyongyang in the run-up to the Olympics has exacerbated leaders’ fears of an impending attack.
In 1987, two North Korean terrorists blew up a Korean Air flight in hopes of undermining the public’s confidence in South Korea to host a secure international sporting event. In recent days, North Korea fired a missile over Japan and tested what may have been a thermonuclear device. While the Seoul Olympics ended without major incident, there is no guarantee that next year’s games will do the same.
At this late stage in the event’s planning process, it would be impossible to move the 2018 Olympics to another location. And the solution to greater security is not, as U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested, to respond with “fire and fury.” Instead, the best chance for peaceful games is to follow the precedent of the past three decades. Complete security may be impossible to achieve, but effective and efficient security isn’t.